Life Outside the Cave

July 17, 2014

By Dodo Bird Commander writer Matt Holden






It’s risky for a caveman to leave the comfort and safety of his cave. In much the same way, I prefer to not to take the risk of playing Commander outside the comfort and safety of my kitchen-table play group.

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For one, it’s guys I’ve known for a while and can joke around with. For instance, everyone’s got that one thing they always get grilled for by the others. For me there are several: it’s that I always takesies-backsies after calling attackers, or that I play ridiculously few basic lands, or that I’m incapable of simple life total math.

Another reason I prefer playing with my steady group is that we all play decks that are around the same caliber. I think this is so because we all enjoy having interactive games, we all disapprove of insta-win combos, and we all appreciate deck orchestration more so than the firepower of individual cards.

That said, I do sometimes venture outside the familiar furnishings of the cave–and there’s a lot to see out there, both good and bad.

First the bad.

It’s frustrating to me when I run into competitive players in game shops who are still in tournament mode when they sit down to play Commander. They try and do the most consistently powerful thing possible with the best available cards–the sole aim being ticks in the win column.

I recently faced a cut throat deck heads up that featured many cheap discard outlet cards and many reanimate cards (like Putrid Imp and Reanimate). Using these types of cards, the deck would consistently land turn 2 or 3 monsters like Sheoldred, Whispering One.

“I get it, you have huge biceps. Play again?”

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I think Commander was created as a 1-of style of Magic to discourage deck redundancy (and therefore game redundancy), to empower genius deckbuilders, and to give the “rest” of the Magic cards a shot at the limelight. I don’t think it was created for turn 2 Sheoldred.

But I don’t entirely loathe cut throat Commander players. I can learn from their competitive perspective and as always, get turned on to new cards. It’s just that they haven’t reached the enlightenment yet: that real multiplayer Magic is impossible without steady interaction between decks, cards, and, centrally, people.

Now for the good of what’s beyond the cave walls.

It’s piques my curiosity when I see fresh new deck ideas that demonstrate great synergy. Synergy is a word we use in Magic to mean “strong deck design”. In the same way a vehicle designer diligently engineers a car’s drive shafts, transmission, and engine to fit artfully together into the final design, so too does a deck builder assemble each card into the greater machinery of the deck.

Here are some great things I experienced outside the comfort of my play group at game stores in Southeast Michigan. All are the result of skillful deck construction.

Grimgrin, Corpse-Born. Havengul Lich. Undying creatures. Elegant, but not tackily degenerate.


Oloro, Ageless Ascetic. Well of Lost Dreams. Archangel of Thrune. It gels but it doesn’t sting.


Hamletback Goliath. Mage Slayer. Rubblehulk. It hurts but you’re not mad because it was awesome.


And after each of these things happened, instead of a quiet “scoop, play again?” like earlier, there was laughter. Cheers even.

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So to all you kitchen-table Commander players out there like me: Go ahead. Venture outside the comfort of the cave. There’s good and there’s bad, and you might be surprised what you find…

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